Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Easy Cancer?

When you tell people you have prostate cancer, many react with sympathy, but many seem to shrug. They consider it the "easy" cancer. It seems that everyone knows someone who has had it, had the surgery or seed implants, and has been fine since.

My own father had this experience. His cancer was caught early. It was confined to the prostate, and did not score as being very aggressive. My dad had the radical prostatectomy procedure. He has been cancer free since then, 17 years ago.

Stories like this are so common that many people think prostate cancer is no big deal. But if you have it yourself, it's a huge, life-changing deal. I imagine that this is true no matter how relatively "easy" it is.

When some people I know hear that I have prostate cancer, the first thing they want to do is tell me their story with it, or about a loved one who came through it with flying colors. This is meant to encourage me. I understand that. But their story doesn't apply to me. The treatment that they or their loved one used is not recommended for me. And my prognosis is in question.

My cancer was not caught early enough for surgery or seed implants. And my cancer is very aggressive. So the story of how well your uncle did with his cancer does not encourage me that much. It's like telling someone with pneumonia how easily you got over your cold.

The aggressiveness of prostate cancer is measured with the Gleason score. Probably named after the scientist who discovered it. The Gleason score goes from 1 to 10, one being not very aggressive, and ten being the most aggressive. My Gleason score is 9. This makes it unlikely that they'll ever be able to "get it all," either with surgery or radiation. They might tell me they think they can get all of the cancer, but I'm not sure that I believe them. I've heard too many stories where that turned out not to be true.

The support group that I've mentioned a few times is full of stories of how doctors thought they had gotten all of a patient's cancer, with surgery or radiation or both, only to have it come back at some point. The higher the Gleason score, the more likely that is. According to a recent statistic I heard, 40% of men who are treated for prostate cancer with chemo and radiation have a recurrence in the first ten years.

But for every story of recurrence, I see one where someone with impossibly high numbers, PSA and Gleason, has been doing fine for years. Last week, it occurred to me to ask the group how many Gleason 9 guys there are. I hadn't seen any. I thought I might be the only one. I soon found out how wrong I was. There are many Gleason 9's in the group, and some Gleason 10's too. I thought this would make me feel better, but it didn't. It made me very sad. Some with that score had been around for years at that level. Others with the same score or lower are struggling.

In spite of what you may have heard or thought, there is no silver bullet for prostate cancer. There are many new and improved treatments out there, but there's no cure yet. One thing that men in my place find out is that, despite how common prostate cancer is, there are many more resources for women with breast cancer than for men with prostate cancer. There's no Race For The Cure for us. The NFL doesn't wear blue for men the way they wear pink for women.

This might be because we're all very aware of women's breasts. I've always had an affinity for them! But I try very hard to look at your face, ladies. Promise. But many people have no idea where the prostate is or what it does. We all know what women's breasts do, besides make men crazy. They have a well known function that we've all seen many times. Nobody knows what the prostate does.

There's also the fact that women talk about their feelings more easily than men do. Many men want to keep it a secret when they find out they have prostate cancer, even from their families. We're supposed to be strong and silent. Stiff upper lip, and all that.

I obviously don't have that problem. I wear my heart on my sleeve, and I don't care if I get blood on you if you get too close. I'm putting my cancer out there for everyone to see. But it breaks my heart to see so many men who don't feel they can do that, and suffer for it, along with their families.

The fact that so many men don't want to share what's going on while they go through this terrible disease makes it more difficult for them. It's not an "easy" cancer at all, even if there were such a thing. Which there isn't.

No, there is no easy cancer. And they are all deadly. But with love, and with God, and with the right treatment, it can be made easier. But easy never accomplished anything. Everything worth doing is hard.

So the next time you find out that someone you know has prostate cancer, don't shrug. Don't tell them it's no big deal because you or your uncle got past it with no problem. There are long term side effects from prostate cancer treatment that are very difficult for many men to live with. Even if we live, for many of us, it's with a reduced quality of life. It ain't easy, folks.

Except, in my case, I feel like I really do have it easy. My only symptom, so far, is weight loss. By the way, the program that my nutritionist has me on seems to be working. I've gained five pounds, and I'm working on gaining another two or three. If I can maintain at only two or three pounds below my normal weight, I consider that a success.

When I say that's my only symptom, I mean actual cancer symptom. I have lots of symptoms from treatment. Have I whined about the Lupron lately? If not, let me start... Just kidding.

I think I still look OK, but the dark circles under my eyes, which I inherited from my mom, have gotten worse from stress. But I'm not gaunt or bald, thank the Lord. I still pretty much look like myself.

I'm not in the hospital. Not on chemo. I can still get around. My voice is still strong. Very important for me.

And the love and support I've received has made this as easy as it could possibly be. But still not easy. I still hit a wall when I try to do too much. I still struggle to focus on work I need to do. I still make life difficult for those closest to me because of my emotional ups and downs.

I know it won't always be even this easy. It's not easy now, and it will only get harder. I'm gonna try to stay here as long as I can, and that won't be easy. But one way or another, this too shall pass. The best part, and the easiest part, is what's happened between God and me since all of this started. It's easier than it's ever been for me to feel his presence. He's always right here. Not beside me, but inside me. I don't even have to speak. I just tune in. It's amazing.

My heart breaks for the guys who don't have that kind of support, personally, emotionally, and spiritually. For them, I can't imagine how hard this must be. Having the "easy" cancer can be the hardest thing in the world.

But as a Christian, I know that the Bible never promises us an easy road. In fact, it promises just the opposite. But Jesus didn't take the easy road. He took the hardest road of all. I just wrote about it for a whole week recently. I can't forget that now. He is my model for how to face adversity.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, because he is with me. (Psalm 23:4) I am at peace, not because my road is easy, but because he is with me. Because I know his goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life. And at the end of this road, however long or short it may be, I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (Psalm 23:6)


  1. Around my family, we call this the gall bladder story. "let me tell you about MY gall bladder operation." As if you will feel better... you're right about guys not wanting to talk about it, yet it is a very therapeutic action... to the right person that doesn't want to tell you THEIR story. Just listening and understanding helps the patient to offload some of the pressure that is bottled up inside them.
    But how do we get that message across. BTW, I had stage one, Gleason 7, seeds, radiation. 8 years ago. And I still dribble in my skivvies, occasionally poop my pants, and the "other" problem. Who cares. You can use my shoulder any time, my friend. capnkirk in Michigan.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Kirk! It's good to hear from you.

  3. I don't know what to rightly say, what I can tell you is NO cancer is easy cancer and people need sensitivity training. I will keep praying for you Mark.